In mid-December 2017, the United States Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted to reclassify Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as information services rather than common carriers or public service providers. ISPs are those services that connect companies and individuals to the internet: telephone companies, cable companies and so on. Though debated from at least 2003, the common carrier designation was assigned only in 2015 by the FCC under the Obama administration. The current membership of the FCC, with a majority reflecting the views of the Trump administration, chose the former designation of information service. This decision, controversial in American political circles, offers a very interesting look at how societies deal with new technologies.
The debate about net neutrality in the U.S.
The political debate quickly adopted the shorthand title of “Net Neutrality” for the issue, a title drawn from a 2003 paper by Tim Wu, a law professor then at the University of Virginia. Professor Wu coined the term as a way to define a debate as to whether the FCC could regulate Internet Service Providers as “common carriers” or whether regulation best occurred through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as “information services.”
The designations reflect a difference in U.S. law that determines the kind of regulation the government can require for communication companies. The FCC (established by law in 1934 with amended jurisdiction over the years) deals with entities engaged in broadcasting or electronic communication. The Federal Trade Commission, among other duties, focuses on consumer protection.
The competing jurisdictions reflect subtle differences in how people understand communication and communication technology. The key issue has to do with whether an ISP should provide equal access to all online materials without distinction of sources or content or whether an ISP can offer different levels of service (faster transmission, for example) and different services (choosing the sources it will serve, for example).
The “common carrier” classification means that the ISP provides a service in common to all without discrimination, blocking variable rates of transmission or anything else that would differentiate clients, following long-established legal principles for communication. Thus the ISP acts as a neutral entity, a conduit for communication content. In other words, digital traffic simply appears as digital bits in an ISP’s service, whether those bits encode audiovisual content (films, digital video, music, etc.), websites, short message services, email or anything else. Similarly, the source of the digital information, such as large corporations, small businesses, individual users, governments and churches, does not matter. The government’s role as a regulator simply guarantees that the ISPs offer equal service to all.